A couple of important articles about the future of coal from scholarly and industry sources
Today's online edition of Forbes magazine carries a blog post by Steve Cicala from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. Cicala explains his purpose:
I’d like to use this post to address a common narrative that started long before Mr. Trump was on the ballot. That is, that government regulations are waging a “war on coal,” and that this war is killing the coal industry (particularly in Appalachia).
Cicala makes the same points as others: that Appalachian coal has suffered because of cheap natural gas and its inability to compete with western coal. (As I've noted on a number of occasions, neither local "newspaper" has ever listed competition from western coal as a reason for Appalachian coal's decline. I believe that's because companies like Murray Energy are invested in the western coal fields -- they've still gained as Appalachian coal has lost. Despite the locals' rhetoric about caring about coal miners, their sympathies are first and foremost with the coal owners.)
First, at the start of last year, the United States was actually producing more coal than it did in the early parts of the 1990s. Second, it’s hard to notice a discernible break from the long-term trend in Appalachia. The decline of eastern coal has been going on for decades. While it may be good sport to blame Obama for things that occurred before he ever held office, this is probably a stretch.
As for regulations, Cicala believes they may have actually helped Appalachian coal to survive in its battle with western coal. (See article for explanation.) Finally, he thinks that a Trump presidency would hurt eastern coal despite Trump's promises:
Potentially opening up more federal lands to gas extraction, as Mr. Trump has proposed.... would only drive the price of natural gas lower and endanger even more coal-fired power plants.
Going forward, there is certainly room for policy to help coal communities, but we should be under no illusions that Appalachia would return to some imagined state of glory if only the politicians would get out of the way.
On Sunday, David Schlissel, who is director of resource planning analysis at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, published an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "IEEFA Op-Ed: Coal Will Not Recover":
Indeed, a perfect storm of market, technological and regulatory developments are undermining the financial viability of many coal-fired generators across the country. Cheap natural gas and low energy prices in general are likely to persist. Wind-driven electricity will take a larger chunk out of the coal-fired industry, as will solar. Peak demand has been relatively flat, in part because of gains in energy efficiency, and that boils down to more competition for the same amount of the pie.
The decline of coal is long term and irreversible, and it is happening now.
Has anyone in West Virginia raised these points?
James Van Nostrand, a WVU law professor and director of WVU's Center for Energy and Sustainable Development has. According to the West Virginia Record:
Van Nostrand testified before the U.S. Senate panel Oct. 5, the same day three West Virginia lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R), U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D) and U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins (R), also testified about how the Clean Power Plan’s affects the nation's hard-hit, coal-producing region.
As he told the Record:
"Continuing to blame the EPA for the decline in the coal industry in West Virginia does nothing to improve our prospects and, in fact, raises false hopes that defeating the Clean Power Plan or dismantling the EPA will solve our problems," Van Nostrand said. "It is about economics, which is driven by technology and innovation. That's how we succeed in this game, not by misguidedly blaming the EPA."
Trying to help
Finally, the Obama administration is trying to help. As reported by this morning's Gazette-Mail but not by the local papers:
Coalfield communities in West Virginia and around the country received millions of dollars on Wednesday, as part of the second round of grants under President Barack Obama’s POWER Initiative.
The program is designed to help communities that are hard-hit by the decline of the coal industry. In August, West Virginia programs and communities received more than $16 million as part of the first round of grants — nearly 40 percent of the money given out.
This time around, West Virginia projects got more than $5.6 million, of nearly $28 million distributed.